President Vladimir Putin, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term next year, left the door open for a return to the Kremlin in 2012, a Russian newspaper reported Saturday.
"There is still a lot of time," the daily Kommersant quoted Putin as telling reporters Friday during a Group of Eight summit in Germany, when asked whether he would run in 2012. "Theoretically it's possible. The constitution does not forbid it. But it's very far away, I haven't even thought about this."
On one level, the remark could be taken as a straight statement of fact: while the 1993 Russian Constitution bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms, it allows them to seek re-election after a hiatus.
But Putin's future plans are the focus of constant attention, in part because post-Soviet Russia has not experienced a normal transfer of power through an election. Its first president, Boris Yeltsin, stepped down abruptly in December 1999 and handed the helm to Putin, who was then elected in March 2000.
Amid repeated calls by politicians for Putin to remain to power after 2008, the president has stressed that he opposes changing the constitution to allow him to stay on. But he has also suggested he will choose a favored successor and hinted that he may keep a hand in running the country after he steps down.
There has been widespread discussion about just what he plans to do, including speculation that he could stage a return in 2012, taking over from a placeholder president elected next March. Because of Putin's strong popularity, it would be virtually impossible for a candidate to be elected without his support.
Despite his repeated assurances that he will leave the presidency after the elections next March, Putin muddied the waters last week by saying he favors lengthening the presidential term to between five and seven years, instead of four - and not saying whether it should be done before he leaves office.